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D.C. Wine Community Loses Important Importer

Alex and Alfredo Bartholomaus will work for Winebow. (Billington Wines)

The recession has taken a bite out of the Washington wine community with the recent demise of Billington Wines, which helped put South American wines on U.S. dinner tables.

Billington, based in Springfield, closed its doors on May 15, citing the loss of some of its primary clients to other importers, depressed demand for wines because of the economy and declining sales at Havens Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, which the company purchased in 2006.

Details are still to be worked out, but some of the wineries in Billington's portfolio now will be represented by Winebow, the New Jersey company that grew from an Italian specialty importer into a major import and distribution powerhouse. Winebow has been Billington's distributor in the Washington area for several years, so the companies have a long-standing relationship. Many of Billington's sales associates, including company founder Alfredo Bartholomaus and his son, Alex, who has run Billington the past several years, will work for Winebow.

Alfredo Bartholomaus, who emigrated to the United States from Chile in the early 1960s, started Billington in 1985. His main client was Cousino-Macul, Chile's oldest family-owned winery. Working primarily “out of the trunk of my car,” Bartholomaus introduced American retailers and restaurants to the value that Chile produces with inexpensive wines that outperform their competition. His company was one of the first quality importers to spring up in the Washington area, a market that thrives today.

“I came to this country with one hand tied behind my back, and I have been fighting ever since,” he said Tuesday. “I will keep fighting. I will still be around.”

(Some disclosure is in order: Like most wine writers around metropolitan Washington, I count Alfredo Bartholomaus as a friend and mentor. He has been a gregarious and effective missionary on behalf of the wines from Chile and Argentina, always with a keen eye, rapier wit and precise palate for the value these wines represent for consumers.)

In addition to Cousino-Macul, Bartholomaus introduced the wines of Catena Zapata to the U.S. market long before Argentinian malbec became synonymous with value-priced red wine. Nicolás Catena has been widely credited with inspiring Argentina's rise in wine production and quality.

With the economic boom of the 1990s and the growth of wine consumption through this decade, Billington prospered. Under Alex Bartholomaus' leadership, the company created the 2 Brothers Big Tattoo brand of value-priced wines from Chile and Germany. With each case sold, the company donated $6 to local charities in honor of Liliana Bartholomaus, Alex's mother, who died of breast cancer.

As of May 19, the company's Web site boasted that nearly $1.1 million had been donated to various charities in the communities where the wine was sold. Even without the charitable motive, Big Tattoo Red was one of the best value wines on the market for each of the past four years at about $8 to $10 per bottle.

In his heyday, the elder Bartholomaus was lauded by the eminent wine critic, Robert M. Parker Jr., for being one of the first importers to introduce U.S. wine lovers to the wines of Chile and Argentina. “I put South America on the map,” Bartholomaus said, referring presumably to its wines.

Under Alex Bartholomaus' leadership, Billington expanded its portfolio to include wines from Spain, Germany and Alsace. It created a California label called Lily in honor of Alex's daughter, producing fine pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma County. In 2006, Billington purchased Havens winery in California. At the time it seemed like a bold investment for a rapidly growing company with no experience running a winery. Sales lagged, and the elder Bartholomaus today calls Havens “a white elephant.”

The end for Billington began last November when Catena decided to move his Alamos line of value-priced wines to the larger import force of E&J Gallo. Billington sold 40,000 cases of Alamos a year, and the line accounted for a third of Billington's revenue, Bartholomaus said. Familia Rutini, another Argentine winery partly owned by Catena, had already moved its family label and its Trumpeter wines to Chicago-based Pasternak Imports.

Then last week came news that Catena's main label would now be represented by Winebow. The cause and effect of this announcement is unclear, as Billington had apparently shuttered its doors a few days earlier. Whether it was a death blow or the result of an inexorable collapse of a family company and an immigrant's dream may never be determined.

Winebow is creating a new corporate division to represent some of Billington's wines, including Catena, Cousino-Macul and a few others, according to Leonardo LoCascio, president of Winebow. Alex Bartholomaus will head the division, with his father acting as consultant and brand ambassador, a role much like he played at Billington the last several years during his semi-retirement. Winebow, however, is not purchasing Billington or assuming its remaining obligations.

“I am looking forward to working with both of them,” LoCascio said.

The fate of some Billington brands, including the Big Tattoo wines and the Havens winery, is still not clear.

-- Dave McIntyre

By The Food Section  |  May 28, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags: Dave McIntyre  
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